The highs from rock shows safely carried me through my teens and early 20s. Seeing Bikini Kill at the Sitcom in Indianapolis was one the most memorable experience until i followed them to Cleveland the next night. I was 18. Kathleen Hanna screamed, GIRLS TO THE FRONT!! She told the dudes, back the F* Up. The crowd was compliant except for one dude who was angry about this and yelled at her. Feeling threatened, she swiftly had him kicked out of the club. She created a safe circle of women around her. I found myself face to face with her in her circle. I had never stood up so close at rock shows for fear of getting my teeth knocked out. She generously paved a safe space for me.
People are revisiting the 90s these days. Although this makes me feel old-I can’t help to be thrilled that my riot grrl icons is being celebrated and honored for her contribution to culture. I’m reposting this interview because Kathleen Hanna was my gateway into feminism. She found and exerted her power and shared it with all of the girls. That generosity is something that has stuck with me (as well as the ringing in my ears.) -Lisa
Q. & A. | Kathleen Hanna on Love, Illness and the Life-Affirming Joy of Punk RockMATT DIEHL NOVEMBER 20, 2013
The incendiary lead singer of the band Bikini Kill, Kathleen Hanna became the most famous face of the riot grrrl movement, the early-’90s feminist counterpart to grunge. (She coined the phrase “smells like teen spirit,” which her friend Kurt Cobain would make famous.) Later, she moved from the Pacific Northwest to New York City, where she fronted the socially conscious dance-rock outfit Le Tigre, and most recently she founded the band the Julie Ruin, which released the kinetic record “Run Fast” in September.
The new documentary “The Punk Singer,” which opens in theaters next week (watch an exclusive clip below), traces all of those accomplishments and more, using candid interviews with Hanna and her cohorts — including Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney (and “Portlandia”) and the precocious style maven Tavi Gevinson — to build a cultural history around Hanna’s biography. The film, directed by the first-timer Sini Anderson, also delves beyond Hanna’s music, intimately depicting her struggle with late-stage Lyme disease and home life with husband Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys. It’s a moving but unsentimental portrait of a woman with an uncanny knack for self-expression. Here, the 45-year-old musician talks about the film and her life to date.
What was your reaction when you were first approached about making a film about your life?
“Hell, no!” Every single thing I’ve ever done in my life, I’ve been like, “This is the worst possible time I could do this” — and then I went ahead and did it. I was really very sick at the time, and I didn’t know what I had. But when I thought more about it, I realized this could be the last chance to get something down on film about my life — and I needed to do it before I couldn’t talk anymore.
You really opened up your life, from late-stage Lyme disease to your relationship with your husband.
Mortality looming over you really changes your personality in such a huge way. I thought I was dying, so I was like, “I don’t care anymore — I am vulnerable. I’m sick of being guarded!” Adam really got me through coping with Lyme: every day, he would place every single one of the 39 pills I had to take in my pill case so I didn’t have to do it. He’s the person who changed my IV bags, kept the house clean, cooked every single meal for me and kept everything running for two years. Besides the fact that he’s hot as hell, really talented and has the best sense of humor of anyone I know, who else would change an IV bag for you while you’re laying on the couch having a seizure?
“The Punk Singer” begins with footage of you performing an early confessional spoken-word piece where you describe the importance of “screaming what’s unspoken.”
I’m standing in a coffee shop with Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto of Fugazi, rocking back and forth and saying all this stuff about incest! When I see it today, my stomach drops and I want to hide under a blanket. At the same time, that’s what I was like — Mr. Confrontation.
Did honestly documenting what you were going through in this film feel empowering?
I needed to tell everybody. In the end, my story is about telling the truth. Feminism is something you do, not something necessarily you have to call yourself. There’s still a lot to scream about.
What seemed distinct about Bikini Kill was how you translated what was happening in ’90s art and activism — Barbara Kruger, Guerrilla Girls, Jenny Holzer, Kathy Acker, ACT UP — into this superdirect punk rock vehicle.
Exactly! I wanted to bridge the gap between those two worlds. One way I was influenced by those artists that nobody ever talks about is that they used language. I was a photography student, and the kind of purist male teachers I had were like, “If your art is strong enough, you shouldn’t need language to explain it.” I remember thinking, “Oh, that’s another great way to shut female artists up.” Ansel Adams can take pictures of rocks and that’s fine, but that’s not what Jenny Holzer does. That influenced my choice to explain what the songs were about when I was performing onstage. I really wanted women to know what I was singing about — stuff from real life, not “I Am the Walrus” or something. Girls in the front row would be crying, singing along to the lyrics, while men in the audience would yell, “Shut up and just play!”
Feminism really informs “The Punk Singer,” down to the fact that you insisted no male “experts” be interviewed.
The first thing I said to Sini was, even though I love Ian MacKaye I didn’t want him — or Calvin Johnson or Thurston Moore — in the movie about my life. Instead, I wanted to hear from my old Bikini Kill bandmate Tobi Vail, because she knows everything about music, especially about women in music and punk. Kim Gordon was so hilarious and deadpan, too. One of the most memorable parts of the film for me is about how I met Adam while on the tour with Beastie Boys and Sonic Youth. There’s a part where Kim says, “I wanted to get them together, but I was kinda scared.” Was she scared for me? It sounded like she was scared for him!
My impression was she was implying that setting you up was either going to be the best thing ever, or the worst. There was no middle ground.
That’s a good way to put it — like how, if it had ended badly, I could’ve totally written 18 records about how Adam is stupid, how he wrote “Licensed to Ill” and I hate his guts. He should be pretty worried if he ever divorces me!
One thing that struck me watching “The Punk Singer” was how your early music has endured, even separate from the community and ideology that spawned it.
That blew my mind, too. At the time, I felt like a feminist playing the lead singer in a band more than an actual musician. After a while, though, I was like, “Nobody is asking us about our process as songwriters.” It’s not like Wilco is being asked about their politics! We just took back all our material from Kill Rock Stars and started our own label, so I’m hoping people revisit that with that exact same attitude — like, “Wait a minute, there are some really good songs here, even if I’m not into feminism or politics.”
Did that perception follow with your subsequent musical projects?
When we started Le Tigre, people would ask me, “Does it bother you that a lot of people just like the music and they don’t care about your politics?” I was like, whatever gets them through the door — they can read the liner notes later! Now, with the Julie Ruin, I just want to enjoy being in a band with my friends, and not have to wear the mantle of “feminist punk rock leader” or any of that. Constantly thinking about what the audience wants starts to feel like you’re working in a restaurant. My whole joke with Adam and I is that he would be given a bunch of free weed after shows, while I was getting letters about incest. I don’t want to say I want the weed — I’ve just worked really hard, and want my prize.
The film follows your career to your current work with the Julie Ruin, which makes it less about nostalgia and more of a story that continues to evolve.
I’m still in treatment for Lyme. My life is better than when we first started filming, but not everything is filled with butterflies. To me, the real happy ending isn’t in the movie. It’s going to see the Julie Ruin play live and seeing that I can still do it onstage. I never thought I’d be able to perform again, and when I do now, I think, This is the happy ending. It isn’t in the movie. It’s in real life.